Our reliance on technology in isolation altered our relationship to gadgets and our consumption habits, while businesses had to adapt their strategies around new technologies like AI.
Advances in technology and new tech trends emerge every year and alter the way we live and behave. This was even more pronounced in 2020 in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has radically impacted the way people and industries alike experienced and interacted with the world.
Between binging Netflix and doom-scrolling news on Twitter, we were transfixed to our screens more than ever before. Our devices were quite literally the only portal we had to the outside world during lockdowns.
A McKinsey Global Survey of various business executives conducted over the summer found that responses to Covid-19 have accelerated the adoption of digital technologies by several years. And many of those changes may be with us for the long haul.
Here are ten ways this pandemic-ridden year impacted our relationship with technology:
Screens as portals
The now-ubiquitous video platform Zoom has become an inseparable part of not only work-from-home meetings but fulfilled our social obligations as well. We used it for everything from Shakespearean theatre, board games to funerals. So much so, we even started to experience “Zoom fatigue”.
Zoom and FaceTime were often used by medical professionals to deliver timely care and advice to patients while minimising exposure, as telemedicine and virtual care took off.
Also: RIP Skype.
QR codes helped facilitate contactless payments, and apps like PayPal or Venmo allowed us to quickly bring up profiles for vendors and friends that we wanted to pay. Tap payments went up too: A survey Mastercard conducted earlier this year found that 46 percent of respondents have upgraded their top-of-wallet card to tappable plastic. QR codes have also replaced physical menus in restaurants across the world.
Remote work mindset
The remote work trend is one likely here to stay even after the pandemic ends. The advantages for businesses of having a remote workforce from a hiring and business continuity standpoint are undeniable – but not necessarily the other way around of course. Not to mention, the cybersecurity issues that arise with it – such as remote access, cloud visibility and security – and tools that track remote working staff’s productivity.
One of the single-most impacted sectors by the pandemic was undoubtedly education. Governments were forced to close all educational institutions to control the spread of the disease, which forced the sudden shift from physical classrooms to virtual spaces and created a massive disruption in learning to over 1.2 billion children.
The transition to online learning was aided by a host of tech platforms, be it through websites, learning portals, video conferencing, YouTube, and mobile apps.
In response to huge demand, many online learning platforms offered free access to their services like India-based online tutoring firm BYJU’S – which happens to be the most valued edtech company in the world.
Lark, a Singapore-based collaboration suite developed by ByteDance, offered teachers and students features like unlimited video conferencing time, auto-translations, and smart calendar scheduling.
As the pandemic shook the global economy, retail and grocery giants that were well-positioned, raked in billions. That was especially true of Amazon and Walmart, which together earned an additional $10.7 billion over last year’s profits during the pandemic – a whopping 56 percent increase.
When “panic shopping” kicked in early on in the wake of the pandemic, essential items that rapidly became scarce in physical stores saw people flooding Amazon’s online stores and third-party sellers to meet their needs.
Companies boosted digital ad spending to target prospective buyers in response to the boom in online shopping, with brands estimated to have spent $59 billion on e-commerce ads over the year as the future of retail moves firmly into the online space. Watch out for at-home virtual fitting-rooms becoming a normal part of in-store consumer experiences.
From automated contact tracing apps, spyware to enforce home quarantine to immunity passports – throughout the year governments around the world adopted surveillance technologies to contain the outbreak of the pandemic.
Unfortunately, many of those proximity apps are not engineered for privacy – and therein lies the rub. While being deployed under the cover of a public health crisis, these technologies can be repurposed to undermine our digital rights.
A single microbe showed just how fragile supply-chain networks and logistics providers are when unexpected demand for critical goods arose during the pandemic. Prior to Covid-19, companies were committed to trimming costs and sourcing components from a variety of global manufacturers.
Blockchain technologies promote exactly what global supply chains will need in a post-pandemic world – trust, resilience and transparency.
For example, the Chinese blockchain startup Hyperchain developed a donation-tracking platform to help treat people infected by the virus, on which donors can see where their funds are most urgently needed and track it until they get a verification once their donation was received.
One challenge for both governments and NGOs during large-scale disasters are cross-border donations and payments. The UN World Food Program introduced blockchain technology for projects, sending money transfers for more than 10,000 Syrian refugees – and in doing so managed to reduce bank transfer fees by nearly 98 percent – highlighting how organisations could save significant funds that could instead be allocated to aid projects.
Blasting away the pandemic blues
With people seeking ways to pass time during lockdowns many turned to video games, resulting in revenue spikes for gaming firms and record sales for consoles as global industry sales topped $10billion each month since March.
Nintendo’s Switch was the best-selling console amid the pandemic, while Microsoft doubled its Xbox shipments compared to 2019.
Automation of customer service
The pandemic has been a watershed moment for digital transformation in customer service and support channels, which have been flooded by anxious customers seeking new levels of personalised engagement.
To cope, customer services organisations are ramping up adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) to ease pressure on agents: according to a Salesforce survey, 32 percent more companies use AI today than did two years ago, and 67 percent more use chatbots that often act as the customer interface for automation.
In the face of stringent safety measures, robots were increasingly rolled out for customer service purposes in the healthcare and retail sectors to play a pivotal role in relieving staff workloads. In Japan, they would even enforce social distancing and mask-wearing protocols.
The need for ever-faster access to data and automation has enhanced the focus on network equipment and communications like never before. In doing so, it has sped up 5G network deployments and the adoption of 5G equipment.
5G also seeped into the public’s imagination, getting embroiled in wild conspiracy theories linked to the pandemic, and most notably, brought geopolitics into the fray as China and Western democracies began to draw up coalitions for what appears to be the upcoming 5G Cold War.
A retro exception
For all the talk of being thrust into the future, one trend that has us going back in time to the 1950s is the comeback of ‘drive-in’ culture, playing not just films but concerts, graduation ceremonies and religious services.